It poured in Oxford, Mississippi, on Thursday night, bands of rain washing over Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Ole Miss’ annual Egg Bowl with Mississippi State and Rebel coach Lane Kiffin himself.
Perhaps it was just meteorological. Perhaps it was metaphorical.
All we know is that a once-promising Ole Miss season ended with a thud, a third consecutive loss, 24-22 this time to its bitter rival. In the bigger picture, a once-promising marriage between Kiffin and the Rebels could be coming to an end — rumors and reports swirling that the 47-year-old will bounce to Auburn after just three seasons by the Grove.
Afterwards, a still soggy Kiffin could only stand there and (rightfully) express frustration with the officiating while deftly jabbing away questions about his future with feints and folly.
Reporter: “With the regular season over now, do you anticipate being Ole Miss’ coach next season?”
Kiffin: “Yes, I do.”
He spun to humor.
“I feel like that was a court trial where I’m like, ‘Yes I do.’” Kiffin said with a smile.
A few minutes later, the reporter circled back with more specifics.
Reporter: “If Auburn offers you its coaching position, do you anticipate being Ole Miss' coach next season?”
Kiffin: “Ah, I do.”
“Anticipating” isn’t much of a standard, not that it matters. This wasn’t a full-throated denial or some big sweeping play such as whipping out a pen and signing a contract extension for all to see. But, does it matter?
This is a business where even undeniable denials mean nothing. In 1998, Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville claimed he would only leave Oxford in a “pine box.” He promptly left for Auburn — on his own two feet — at the end of the season.
And what’s a contract worth anyway, Kiffin noted on Thursday.
“I’ve signed three [at Ole Miss] so does the fourth one mean you’re never leaving?” Kiffin asked. “So I don’t know. I'm much more focused and worried about the game than whether you sign another contract. And I'm not acting ungrateful for that.
“But everybody thinks, you signed a contract, well a year ago you said the same thing and here we are again.”
Indeed, here we are again. It’s just that no one is quite certain what “here” represents.
Kiffin has served as a bolt of attention and energy for the Ole Miss program. He’s a personality, a national figure for a school and a state that always craves someone paying attention to the success that can come out of the place.
In three years, Kiffin made Ole Miss matter. There is no questioning that. They won 10 games and the Sugar Bowl a year ago. At the end of this season though, it was an 8-4 team with victories over just two teams with winning records — Kentucky and Troy.
The 7-0 start got the Rebels into the top 10, but reality was coming. What happened?
“A lot tougher schedule would be part of it,” Kiffin said of a slate back loaded with Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State. “Just the analytics of it … Had some games where we didn’t put it together … Played our worst offensive game of the year [Thursday] …”
He went on. A frustrated coach almost always can.
Still, the promise of Kiffin, the potential of Kiffin has certainly caught the eye of some over on the Alabama Plains. Auburn is a political mess but often succeeds in spite of it.
In the 2010 season, it won the national title. In 2013, it played for it again. Ole Miss hasn’t even won the SEC since 1963, when the league was still segregated and thus not particularly relevant. It’s never even made the SEC championship game, which began in 1992.
Kiffin, presumably, is one who can change that, but he’d have to stick around. He did praise reports that the school’s collective raised $10 million recently, which he said was critical to “signing players and keeping your players.”
Would he be better off at Auburn? It’s hard to say.
Kiffin did take time Thursday to continue his mocking of local television reporter Jon Sokoloff, who reported Monday via “unnamed sources” that Kiffin would resign from Ole Miss on Friday to become Auburn’s coach. Since Auburn plays Saturday against Alabama, that timeline never made any sense. Eventually though?
If nothing else, Kiffin said he had to address the “inaccurate, false reporting” with his players.
“I think when it was falsely reported by Jon, who's now famous,” Kiffin said, looking at Sokoloff in the news conference. “Congratulations, [apparently] you can just write whatever you want. I would do it too because you are never held accountable and you get to become famous and maybe you'll be right.
“Jon did it,” Kiffin continued. “So I had to have a team meeting to say his article was wrong, which I would love to know who these ‘unnamed sources’ are from Jon. So yes, I had to deal, had to have a team meeting because of that. When there is other stuff and chat rooms and stuff … but when a reporter writes it, it changes the game with that.”
It may or may not have played a role in Ole Miss losing the Egg Bowl. No one knows. Just as maybe only Kiffin knows what is coming next.
A little over a month ago, Ole Miss was ranked No. 7 in the country and Kiffin looked at home.
Then everything got washed out.